FOR THE WEEK OF JULY 31, 2023
New government limits on Israeli Supreme Court provoke wide protests against prime minister
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Israel is grappling with massive street demonstrations and threatened strikes sparked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to weaken his nation's courts. He won an key victory last week when Parliament enacted the first piece of that program — limiting the Supreme Court's ability to block government actions. It passed by 64-0, with 56 opposition lawmakers boycotting the final vote in the after failed attempts to find a compromise. Netanyahu prevailed because a coalition of far-right political parties support the long-time prime minister. They defend the changes as a necessary correction to judicial overreach. Both sides claim to be defending democracy.
Hundreds of thousands of street protesters opposed the measure, which critics say erodes one of the few checks on government power in a country without a constitution. Doctors went on a one-day strike to show their concern. "We cannot work as physicians when Israel is no more a democratic state," says Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. More than 500 military pilots and 600 soldiers have threatened not to report for volunteer duty. Weekly demonstrations will continue on Saturday nights, says an alliance of groups, and Israel’s biggest labor union threatens a general strike by transit workers, street cleaners, janitors, security guards and other public sector employees.
Until now, Israel's top court has been able to block decisions made by the prime minister’s cabinet that it deems "unreasonable." With parliament (called the Knesset) in recess until October, the prime minister and his backers must wait to vote on other changes -- including giving the government more control over appointing judges. The governing parties contend that the courts have improperly impeded their agenda and the will of the majority, but polls consistently show that the judicial overhaul is unpopular. Critics fear that the slim governing majority will infringe on an array of rights. "These could be the last days of Israeli democracy," says Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli author and historian. "We might witness the rise of a Jewish supremacist dictatorship in Israel."
Prime minister says: "The [Supreme] Court will continue to be independent and no side will take it over."
General says: "There has been an increase in requests to halt reserve duty. If reservists do not report for duty for a long duration, there will be damage done to the preparedness of the military." – Brigadier General Daniel Hagari
U.S. editorial says: "Netanyahu and his coalition have ignited a political crisis of immense proportions, perhaps the most consequential in Israel’s history." – The Washington Post
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